John Locke’s social contract theory is a reaction against Thomas Hobbes’ version of classic Social Contract Theory. Laid out in his masterwork, “Leviathan”, Hobbes’ social contract theory is essentially that, to avoid a life that was, as he put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” and also to prevent an existence “where every man is enemy to every man”, all people must give up, or alienate, their rights to the supreme sovereign government or the Leviathan. Clearly Hobbes’ social contract supports an absolutist form of the state.
Locke’s social contract theory is also designed to avoid the horrible human existence that is the state of nature. But for Locke, humans are rational actors and have inalienable rights. Those rights are, of course, to life, liberty and property. For Locke the social contract is best represented by people joining together to form a representative government to protect their individual rights. In Locke’s theory, the state is not an absolute and coercive monarchy but is rather a voluntary contract between all the members of that society.
Locke’s nation-state is a republic with a constitution. But this constitutional state is not an unlimited democracy, but rather is a limited state characterized by the separation of powers, legislative control of taxes, an independent judiciary and most importantly, the rule of law. Further this state could never take away a person’s inalienable right except by due process of law.
Through his theory, Locke moves the social contract from a one-sided agreement where the sovereign state takes the rights of humans to prevent chaos and rather turns it into a contract between people, that creates a government to prevent chaos by limiting harm and protecting individual rights.
While Hobbes’ theory grew out of his firsthand experience of the English Civil Wars of the mid-17th Century, where Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth government made themselves the “Leviathan” and ended the upheavals, Locke’s grew out of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the political settlement of 1689 which lead directly to the Bill of Rights of 1689. This Bill of Rights established England as a Constitutional Monarchy and was the direct ancestor of the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.
Cohen, Joshua. “Structure, Choice and Legitimacy: Locke’s theory of the State,” in The Social Contract Theorists: Critical Essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, ed. Christopher W. Morris (Lanham, MD: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 1999).
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Chapter XIII (1651) http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/hobbes/leviathan-c.html.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government, (1696) http://www.lonang.com/exlibris/ locke/loc-207.htm